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Reciprocal Giving

Jun 30, 2022 12:00:00 AM / by Tim McCarthy

Sounds oxymoronic.  It’s not.

Exhibit 1:  When my Mom would hand a valuable keepsake to one of her children, I’d say “but Mom, you loved that piece”.  She’d respond: “I’d rather give it with a warm hand”. 

Twenty-five years into our foundation, I’m starting to realize what Mom was thinking.  That is, sharing should ideally bring joy to both the “giver” and the “receiver”.  


The project title of a white paper Timmy and I are working on is “Reciprocal Philanthropy”.  It reflects most of the research we’ve done on philanthropy done right and – well, not so right.  Philanthropy is most effective when “giver” and “receiver” give and receive mutually by partnering in each endeavor.

Bill Leamon, Managing Director for The Business of Good for seven years, passed away in June at 52. To Amy, Tom, Kevin, Matt, Will, Dan, Mike, Ann, and Gerry, I thank you for sharing your husband, father, brother, and son with our mission. Bill’s legacy, particularly in our work mentoring first generation college students, is indelible.

Many more exhibits of effective and ineffective giving are contained in Paul Vallely’s “Philanthropy from A to Z (Aristotle to Zuckerberg)” .

The dangers of the “giver/receiver” model include. 

  • Government as “Giver”; poor citizens as “Receiver” - Fails by fostering dependency
  • The super-rich givers have failed over the centuries, including:
    • The “robber barons” of the industrial age, whose “giving” is a means of absolution for (often) egregious business sins.
    • Current mega-rich donor foundations who often create problems by believing that becoming a billionaire qualifies one for creating breakthrough solutions to poverty.   
  • Religion-based approaches fail because of strings attached – “receiver’” benefits are tied to compliance to the “giver's’” doctrine. Examples include all faith traditions but probably the most horrifying examples were the poor mercenaries who were signed up for the Crusades. 

The reciprocal models cited by Vallely hold more hope for sustainable benefits include:

  • The early Greeks, credited with “inventing” the concept of philanthropy. Philo, the word for loving and Anthropos, the Greek word for mankind.  Aristotle and other early teachers believed that giving and receiving were the honor of being human and that service to each other is a basic human need.
  • Most Judeo-Christian philanthropy was (and is) based on the concept that “community is society with a human face”. All humans serve others to benefit the community, therefore themselves. 
  • Italy’s “Monte de Pieta” of the Middle Ages and Muhammed Yunis’ still-growing Grameen bank are examples of entrepreneurial lending provided both by and for the poor.  

William Easterly’s 2007 book, “White Man’s Burden” suggests that planners must be replaced by searchers.  Such groups as the World Bank Group and the World Health Organization were less effective until they began realizing that the “receivers” must be and equal partner in philanthropy.  A plan is just a plan until both parties search for the best method of implementing well-intentioned giving.

Imagine Mom, the “giver's” feeling when she saw her valuable gift displayed in a beloved child’s home.


Tim McCarthy  


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Tim McCarthy

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